The Arrow

There are no answers; only choices.

Archive for January, 2011

An Arab 1989?

Posted by thearrow on January 27, 2011

First Tunisia, then Egypt, now Yemen. Wow! The cauldrons are bubbling to topple 30-year oppressive or at least very strict and corrupt regimes. I read Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast’s  Baltimore Sun op-ed, “In Tunisia, history repeats (sort of)” the other day. They  know Romania well because he was the U.S. ambassador there between 1998 and 2001 and I agree with the points they raise  about what the West should do to help Tunisia achieve success.  I wonder if they are surprised by this wildfire, seemingly similar to what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989.

I know very little about the Arab world but I’m very excited that this is happening. It will be a tough, long road to peaceful, stable, and democratic societies. Romania is still far from what it could be and, sadly, every day things are getting worse. But maybe others can learn from our  poor-governance mistakes. I think the most important thing is to help Tunisians build strong and accountable institutions that can guarantee their rights are protected and their voices are heard. Pretty much everything else stems from that.

A good negative example are the recent IMF and World Bank loans Romania had to take to stay afloat and for which it had to get its budget deficit in some order. Which led to the reduction of public sector wages by a whopping 25%, of pensions by 15%, of imposing taxes on more pensions, and an increase in the Value Added Tax to 25%, all with absolutely no consideration on what effects these might have on the people. And without any glimpse of a thought given to meaningful reforms of the pension system that wouldn’t leave people hanging on a thread for survival.

Or a meaningful reform of the public sector. We already pay our teachers, doctors, and nurses crap and the government reduces their wages by a quarter?? While at the same time some well-connected government employees earn obscene salaries for nothing? Thousands of doctors and nurses have left the country in search for better pay and treatment.  At the same time, checking into a hospital in Romania is a Russian Roulette these days; you might get a good doctor but it’s likelier that you won’t and also quite likely you’re going to get out dead even if you had some minor ailment.  And even if you get a good doctor, the rest of the medical staff might decide they won’t attend to your needs. Hello!

Or a meaningful reform of the justice system. Unless you have the money for a really good lawyer, the last outcome you can expect in court is justice.

I lay equal dollops of blame on the IMF, the World Bank, and the Romanian government. It seems that the first two have much narrower concerns than they should, as they stick to some abstract economic yardsticks but ignore the effect on people, and don’t care about instilling good-governance principles. And the Romanian government stopped pretending it cares about the people a long time ago. It’s just a bunch of half-literate guys  whose only interest is lining their pockets. They specialize in daylight downtown robbery.

So, if the countries now on their path to freedom can learn how to avoid these mistakes, that would be a huge success for everyone.


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Posted by thearrow on January 27, 2011

You think a snowstorm cannot have lightnings and thunders? You might be in for a surprise. That’s exactly what we had last night in the DC area. Steve and I were driving home and on the way I admired big violet flares in the sky and heard the occasional rumble. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Here is the explanation provided by the Capital Weather Gang at The Washington Post:

“Besides the extreme snowfall rates, this storm will most likely be remembered for its abundant thunder, triggered by the strong vertical motions associated with the powerful upper-level low pressure. Thunder snow and thunder sleet are often a risk during winter with upper-level lows as potent as this one was, but usually sightings are fairly isolated – not this time. Based on Twitter reports alone, thunder was heard in Glen Burnie, Columbia Heights, Silver Spring, Tenleytown, Vienna, Germantown, Fairfax, Capitol Hill, Reston and elsewhere throughout the metro area and beyond.”

How cool is that? It depends on whether you were stuck in traffic for 13 hours on your way home and couldn’t give a shit, or took the metro for the biggest part of your commute and then someone else worried about safety behind the wheel, like me. I was marveling at how beautiful the trees were and gaping my mouth at the lightnings behind the snow clouds, while Steve was trying to see through a blanket of relentless big flakes and not to bump into another car.

Lucky me yesterday, but lucky him today. His workplace is closed, so he gets to sleep in. Mine is open, which means I don’t freeze at home because we don’t have any power and might not get it back until Sunday. Now that is cool in a much different way.

Here are some fabulous pics from yesterday night:

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My Own Tiger Mom

Posted by thearrow on January 23, 2011

There’s a fierce debate right now in the States on whether a strict parenting approach of the variety described in “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” by Amy Chua (in The Wall Street Journal) has much better long-term results for children. The article is an overview of her just-published book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Amy Chua describes the highly involved and very rigorous way in which she raised her two daughters, with long music practice hours and endless drilling for any school assignment they didn’t perform at exceptional level. At the same time, she slaps American parents on their wrists for being overly indulgent with their children and being more interested in building their self-esteem with lots of praise but very little to show in the way of results and hard work. A lot of people cringed when reading that she made one of her daughters exercise a piano piece late into the night without any breaks until the kid finally mastered it.

I am sure that, in today’s extremely competitive global economy, Chua’s parenting style is better than the typical American lax parent she describes, although I do think she pushed it to the extreme by not having allowed her daughters to have play dates or watch TV. Her piece created such a stir that it inspired the latest Time magazine cover story, “Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer.”

So here I am, to tell the story of my own tiger mom, who raised me in Communist Romania in the 70’s and the 80’s. In March 1977, a very strong earthquake shook the South of Romania and several apartment buildings even collapsed. I was 5 and we were living on the 13th floor (which is actually the equivalent of the 15th floor in the States, including the 13th floor which is usually not counted or marked here) and I remember the wild swings of the building. Among all the things that had fallen off shelves was the black-and-white TV, which had fallen on its head and whose image or reception became spotty after that.  We got over the earthquake, grateful that nobody in our family suffered any loss. But we couldn’t find someone capable of fixing the TV. Scores of repairmen came and went, and our TV was none the better.

Two years later, right before I was going to start first grade, yet another repair man came by to help us. He was a chatty, nice guy, who started talking about his granddaughter and her violin lessons at the music school. My mom became very interested in that and started asking him questions. The school was within walking distance from where we were, so before I knew it, my mom dressed me, left grandma to supervise the repairman, and we went to the music school to see how I could be enrolled in violin classes. She found a piano teacher who tested my musical abilities and enrolled me a few days later. I can’t remember if she ever mentioned the music school before. Of course, she didn’t ask me if I really wanted to go.

So I went. I had two classes every week; I studied the violin each time and once a week I had a music theory class, which was actually quite interesting. The teacher was very demanding, but because she was very nice I worked hard to please her, which resulted in a very good grade at the end of the first year, for the performance that all students had to give on a stage as their final exam. I remember wearing a long, black velvet skirt that my grandma had sewn. I was very nervous and couldn’t get to the middle of the stage. I stopped in front of my parents, who were a little to then side.

In second grade, I became very interested in studying English and my mom didn’t hesitate to hire a tutor. So now, in addition to two days a week in music school, I had one English class a week as well. It all went well until the violin classes started being difficult for me. If you think of it, I didn’t choose to go there. I was only doing what I was being told, but my heart was not in it and I probably couldn’t concentrate enough to get better. So my mom hired a violin tutor so that I could be better in music school! I had one English class, two music school classes, and a private violin class every week in second grade. I was 9 years old.

Towards the third trimester, things started going south. I was burnt out and my violin efforts weren’t going anywhere. I wasn’t a terrible student; just one who didn’t get as far as it was possible. On top of that, my grades were slipping. I had forgotten I had a biology test one day until I actually had to take it. For which, obviously, I got a very low grade. And which was the best reason to end the whole music school affair. My mom finally realized that she heaped way too much on me and I just couldn’t bear it. Being just 9 years old, I couldn’t even articulate what was going on. It hit me only when I realized I had completely forgotten about that test. Thankfully, my mom didn’t insist on me continuing to go to music school and announced me one day, smiling, that I didn’t have to study for the year-end performance and didn’t have to go back the following year. Whew!

When I got to fifth grade, my cousin got me a toy piano that I was playing endlessly, so my parents started to ask me if I wanted a real one. I was hesitant, knowing it’s a much bigger expense than a violin. I really liked playing it, but was I going to stick with it? My mom took that for a yes and, when I came back from  a summer camp, there was a shiny, new upright piano in our living room. On a card, also shiny, my dad had written very proudly, “no teacher.” But when I saw that, I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. I understood my dad didn’t want another traumatizing experience, but how on earth was I going to learn how to play the piano without a teacher?

So I got a piano tutor in sixth grade. This time I loved it, but the teacher wasn’t demanding enough. We didn’t do enough drills and my hands weren’t too precise, which was frustrating. At the same time, my mom wasn’t pestering me that much about my homework any more. I tended to day dream a lot and goof off before doing my homework at the last minute. In high school I got to the point where I wished she was more demanding.

So I think the Chinese mother model is essentially good as long as it’s not taken to the extreme and as long as parents are consistent but leave room for individuality. Of course, back in Communism, there wasn’t room for anyone’s individuality.

Later edit: I also wish my mom had disregarded my rebellious statements in fifth grade that I hated French and was never going to be able to learn  it, had whacked me over the head to get the bullshit out of it, and hire a tutor. She did want to get one, but I was determined in my rebellion and continued it in school, where I didn’t work hard enough to learn French because I wanted to fulfill my prophecy that it was hard and I wasn’t good at it. What I was rebelling against is not entirely clear to me even today. But who’s the loser now?

Posted in American culture, Romanian Culture | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

Compliment of the Day

Posted by thearrow on January 20, 2011

I was walking in my office’s neighborhood when I saw a yellow traffic light and I just crossed the street. I know the traffic lights here by heart because I don’t like to wait and I don’t like being slowed down by crowds. Also, as a biker, I pay extra attention to this kind of stuff. I know exactly when the lights on my route are going to turn yellow, red, or green, because that helps me run red lights safely and get a head start. But that’s a story for another day. This was a one-way street, with cars coming from my left, so there weren’t going to be any surprise turns. I continued to walk on the pedestrian crossing just as cars were coming to a halt because of the red light. Perfect timing.

A guy passes me by and says, “How did you make the traffic stop?”, which, of course, made me laugh.

That’s one of the things I love about DC. You get to have light-hearted, funny exchanges with strangers.

Posted in American culture, fun | 2 Comments »

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Posted by thearrow on January 18, 2011

It’s 5:00 p.m. and it’s no longer dark outside. Yaaay! Apart from it not being as depressing, this means I’m getting closer to biking to work again. Maybe I’ll start towards the end of January, when the sun is supposed to set around 6:30, so that I won’t be biking in the dark on the way home.

Why am I saying this? Well, just in case you wanted to know 🙂

Posted in biking | 2 Comments »

The Sign of a Good Day

Posted by thearrow on January 14, 2011

A lot of Romanians are superstitious and believe some really wacky things, such as if you sit in a draft you get a cold. Or, like me, if I wear a V-neck sweater or a shirt and don’t have a very warm scarf around my neck, I’ll get a cold because my throat is very sensitive. LOL. I do believe that, to the dismay of an old friend of mine familiar with our culture, who never hesitates to poke fun at me for this, which I thoroughly enjoy.

So I’ve decided to write more about our superstitions. Not to debunk them, but because they remind me of home and this gives me comfort. They are one of those things that create a community; everybody knows and mentions them. When you live in a different culture you realize how much these small things matter. I think I’m homesick.

This morning, a neighbor got in the elevator together with me. He was holding his briefcase and a paper shopping bag that had some weird grease stains on it. As we were descending, he smacked his forehead: “The garbage!” He forgot to toss the bag down the chute and was carrying it with him; pretty funny. Well, in Romania we consider it a good sign when someone with a full bag or some other container crosses your path. Even if it’s garbage. As long as it’s not an empty bag. And if that happens in the morning, even better.

A good sign for the whole day 🙂

Posted in Romanian Culture | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

They Shoot Politicians, Don’t They?

Posted by thearrow on January 10, 2011

By now everyone who listened to the news knows that Arizona Democratic Representative Gabrielle Gifford was shot in the head at a public meeting in an assassination attempt by a mentally unstable guy who had a semi-automatic weapon.

As a European, the simple fact that people can possess guns and that their right to do so is written in the Constitution was something that took some time to get used to. From my limited understanding, people want to be able to defend themselves and hunt. I get that hunting is a big thing in rural parts of America and that, if the right to bear arms is in the Constitution, it must be a huge deal.

What I don’t understand is how a mentally ill person can possess guns legally. Why is it legal to bear concealed weapons? Why is it legal to own semi-automatic weapons? All these just boggle the mind while at the same time scaring the sh*t out of me. I’ve never even seen a real gun in my life (and have no desire for it), and yet I have to consider the possibility that I could be robbed at gun point or that some day a lunatic can walk into my building and start a rampage.

Also, I can’t help but wonder how Sharron Angle, the 2010 Republican nominee for the U.S. senate seat in Nevada, is sleeping these days, after she said during her campaign that people should take “Second-amendment remedies” against the government. As in, use guns to resolve their grievances with it.

And how Sarah Palin is sleeping after having put a map on her Facebook page with shooting targets over the districts of senators and representatives that had voted for the health care reform bill. One of those targets was on Rep. Gifford’s district. A Palin aide defended this after what happened on Sunday.

Can Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Rep., look Gifford’s family in the eye and repeat that she wants people “armed and dangerous“?

And I’d also like to know how the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, really feels about this, apart from the otherwise sensible statement they put up on their website (which is really just PR). They’re the ones who advocate for these extremely lax gun laws and fiercely against gun controls. Deep in their hearts, can they feel no responsibility for this?

Yes, the gunman was completely disturbed and there are no clear connections between these examples of hateful rhetoric and his actions, but it’s hard to dismiss the role of right-wing politicians and talking heads in creating an atmosphere conducive to such a disaster. It’s rare that these dots can be connected very directly or obviously but the existence of a loose connection is not a stretch of imagination. It all makes me think of this quote of unknown source but great wisdom:

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

It’s also impossible not to notice that there’s something rotten in Arizona, which has been in the news for some very disturbing pieces of state legislation, from a very anti-immigrant (read anti-Hispanic, racial-profiling) law giving state and local police the right to check people’s legal status if they are stopped for other reasons, to, more recently, denying people on Medicaid (the health program for the poor) life-saving transplants for the sake of budget cuts. At least one patient has already died as a result of this.

Here’s a good, succinct overview of the outlandish and downright mind-boggling things happening there:

And if you thought that this is it, you might want to read a Time magazine piece on U.S. private militias training just in case Islamists or some other enemy take over the country. Or in case President Obama and the federal government go too far, in their view (which might mean just giving health insurance to at least some of the 50 million people lacking it).,8599,2022516,00.html

I’m telling you, this country still feels like it’s the Wild Wild West.

Posted in American culture, American Politics | Tagged: | 4 Comments »